Thursday, 10 April 2014

Translating Arkady Gaidar’s The Blue Cup: the complex nature of children’s literature

For the past few weeks, I have been absorbed in the translation of children’s literature. Before looking into this area of translation, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected it to be easy to translate children’s literature, as any literary text will pose its own particular set of problems, but I certainly hadn’t expected it to be one of the most challenging and complicated areas of translation.  

First of all, defining what does and doesn’t constitute children’s literature is problematic; should we define it as literature that has been written for children? Or as works of literature that children choose to read for themselves? What is a child? Can we come to a complete definition of a child, and therefore firmly conclude what children’s requirements are with regards to literature? Furthermore, when we translate cross-culturally, what may be considered appropriate for children in one culture may not be considered appropriate for children in another, how can translators deal with such instances, while avoiding the manipulation of their readers?

I have been working on a translation of The Blue Cup by Arkady Gaidar, a children’s story written in Soviet Russia.  Many aspects of the text have been heavily influenced by the Socialist Realist doctrine of the time; it presents the reader with idealisations of work, industrialization, the Russian countryside and of the Red Army, for example, and some could consider such a text unworthy of translation into English for Western children, as the underlying ideology of such a text is not fully convergent with the ideology of Western culture, and may therefore be considered harmful and manipulative.

However, what prompted me to translate this particular text is its fragmentary nature; despite being heavily influenced by the ideology of its time, this text is predominantly subversive and, I would therefore argue, valuable for children. The Blue Cup is a story about a Russian family (a mother, father and daughter) on holiday at a cabin in the countryside. The mother takes to nagging the father and daughter (Svetlana) about all kinds of chores, not allowing them to play and enjoy themselves whilst on holiday.  The final straw comes when she accuses them of breaking her blue cup and in an act of defiance they decide to leave for an adventure across the Russian countryside. It is through Svetlana and her father’s close relationship that this text comes to be subversive, as the father introduces Svetlana to the emotional complexities of the adult world; through allowing his daughter to come into contact with a variety of people and discussing issues such as war and anti-Semitism, and by confiding in her his doubts with regards to the mother’s love for him. Furthermore, and most importantly, in their defiance of the mother, the father teaches Svetlana to challenge over-bearing authority.  In these instances I therefore paid particular attention to the nuances of the language used by Svetlana and her father when addressing each other.

It was extremely difficult to decide how to deal with aspects of the text that were conventional for its time, as children would not be aware of the socio-historical context and could consequently be open to manipulation; I had therefore considered changing or even removing some aspects of the text. However, I have come to the conclusion that it would be short-sighted to alter or remove these aspects. Precisely because Western children will lack the socio-historical context that would allow these images to be understood as part of a certain ideology, these idealisations will be no more harmful than the idealisations of work and the British countryside in children’s stories such as Thomas the Tank Engine or Postman Pat. Furthermore the underlying ideology will not be consistently supported by surrounding discourse; and therefore these depictions will do little more than allow children to come into contact with ‘the foreign’, displacing them for a short time from their own culture. I have come to believe that translating a variety of children’s literature is therefore necessary and vital to encourage a multiplicity of world views within children, and not to simply limit them to the confines of their own.


Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Call for Papers

The Norwich Papers editorial team is pleased to announce its call for papers for Issue 22, to be published in 2014. The theme of the issue is ‘Voice and Silence in Translation’. We welcome articles from anyone with an interest in the topic, regardless of experience, and are looking for a broad range of contributions covering a variety of languages and cultures and engaging with the many possible interpretations of this theme. Possible topics could include, but are by no means limited to:


  • The individual voice of the translator
  • What is left unsaid or implicit in translation
  • Translation and censorship
  • Particular issues in the translation of texts intended to be read aloud
  • Heteroglossia in translated texts


These are only a few suggestions – there are many other possible approaches, so we hope the theme will inspire you in some way! Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any queries.


Articles should be 4000-5000 words in length and must be written in English. Submissions should be received no later than Wednesday 30th April 2014. We will send a free copy of Issue 22 to all whose contributions we are able to publish.


Please submit papers to


You can find more details about our back issues and how to purchase them on our website. We look forward to receiving your contributions.



Submission details


Please submit papers to


Deadline for submissions: Wednesday 30th April 2014

Format: Word document (preferred) or Rich Text Format (.rtf). Please follow the Harvard style of referencing (also known as the ‘author, date’ system), for which guidelines can be found here.

Articles should be 4000-5000 words in length and must be written in English.



Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Che gelida manina! – baby-talk in translating Where the Wild Things Are

It’s a Saturday night and I have decided to translate Where the Wild Things Are. Sometimes people debate on which books can be considered classics in children’s literature, but about Sendak’s masterpiece there’s absolutely no doubt. And this is the reason why I wanted to translate it on the first place. It’s no secret that I aspire to combine translation with my other great ambition to become a writer, and translating classics for children is my starting point.

What interests me the most are not only the reasons why some children’s books become classics (oh, the list is long…) but also the way authors use words and language. I have a passion for words that words alone cannot describe. Let me put it this way. You know the old ice-breaking game “what would you bring with you to a desert island?”… I would bring a dictionary. Preferably one with synonyms, etymology and collocations. I am mad for words. Give me neologisms to translate, and I will be the happiest translator on Earth.

I approached my first draft of Là dove stanno le cose selvagge with certain boldness. While I was working on it, I had that feeling only translators know: this is the right direction. I was happy with many of the choices I made, every sentence seemed to fit like a glove, but. But.

At some point, I realised that there was something that sounded wrong, almost out of key. I read and re-read my translation, looking for unconvincing verb tenses, superfluous possessives, well-conceived grammatical discrepancies. What was it? What is it that sounds so wrong?

Ohhh. Got it.

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye […]


Le cose selvagge ruggirono terribilmente e digrignarono i terribili denti,

e spalancarono i terribili occhi e mostrarono i terribili artigli,

ma Max salì sulla sua barca e fece ciao con la manina […]


Here’s a gloss of the last sentence, where the off-key note is.


ma Max  salì   sulla  sua  barca  e    fece  ciao  con  la   manina […]

but   Max  stepped  on-the  his     boat    and    did      bye    with   the   little-hand DIM.


La manina. The little hand. It’s back.

Don’t get me wrong, I love diminutives and all kinds of alterations. But I have become very sensitive to using them when addressing to children since I have worked for the British Council in Milan as young learners’ assistant. One of my duties was to walk my caterpillars (pre-primary school children) to the toilet during classes, and one day it happened that I asked one of them to give me their manina (little-hand). My supervisor had heard me and she kindly urged me not to use diminutives with children. After all, what from our point of view is a cute little child hand, from their point of view is… just their hand. Proportions, uh?

I had forgotten about this, but then the manina came back in my translation of Where the Wild Things Are. I did a little bit of research on the topic, and I found that the debate on what expert call “baby-talk” is lively. On one side, “baby-talk” seems to be encouraged because it bonds a strong relationship between parents and children (it is also called parentese), and because it also contributes to children’s mental development; on the other, it is strongly criticised for giving the child a limited repertoire of words, and therefore can inhibit the child’s speech development.

What should the translator do?

Personally, I’ve decided to put away the little hand. Partly because my supervisor’s argument seemed strong enough to me. Then I also thought: what if by using diminutives we contribute to build a wrong child image in children’s literature? How would an Italian child describe Max’s hand? And even if s/he said manina, how can we be sure that s/he has not been influenced by the baby-talk employed by adults that surround him?

I have no answers for these questions, not at the moment. Anyway, I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Where the Wild Things Are is a book to be read aloud by parents to their child, and if they really want to say manina instead of mano, certainly I won’t be the one preventing them from doing that!


See also:

How can child-directed speech facilitate the acquisition of morphology?, by Vera Kempe, Patricia J. Brooks, and Laura Pirott. 2001. Research on Child Language Acquisition: Proceedings of the 8th Conference of the International Association for the Study of Child Language. 1234-1244)    


My name is Elena Traina, I graduated in Lingue e Letterature Straniere at the Università degli Studi di Milano, now I’m studying Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. I translate from English and Spanish into Italian. My main literary interest is children’s literature, but I also like to write and translate poetry and short fiction. I can be reached at

If you are interested in the MA in Literary Translation, or would like to study at UEA, I also recommend that you take a look at my Italian blog:

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Considering Foreignization

This semester my peers and I took to holding casual workshops of one another’s work between classes. As few people shared the language of the translator whose work we were looking at, the main drive in those meetings was to try and help the translator’s work sound more fluid, more readable, more like English. It seemed like the most natural way to go about things, both because it was the only help we could offer and because, well, an English translation should read as flawless English. That was the thought.
For me this all changed after reading some of Lawrence Venuti’s work on foreignizing and domesticating translations. In his book, The Translator’s Invisibility, Venuti talks about the state of translation and the translator’s role in the print culture, and what he has to say is not very encouraging for an aspiring translator. According to Venuti, and probably many people working in translation or translation theory, translators are overlooked. I would agree with this. In a translation of Hesse’s Steppenwolf I am currently reading, there is no biography of the translator, but there is one of the cover artist. That seems imbalanced to me, though the publisher found it reasonable. More shocking was Venuti’s comments on how translators often rewrite a text in an ethnocentric fashion, making it accessible to the new readers at the expense of its cultural heritage. This in turn erases the sense of a text as a translation and imagines it as a new, original text which makes the translator an invisible entity and elevates the original author and his or her work. This can also flatten a text, smoothing out its many potential idiosyncrasies, which is a complaint in regards to poetry which I have heard among my course mates.
Venuti calls for a translation that to some degree foreignizes a text. This means including some idiosyncrasies of the original (language) as well as some of the translator’s hand. By making sure a translation reads as a translation, with some of the strangeness of a foreign language and the translator’s influence, the translator will not be so invisible and the foreign culture will not be subject to the hegemony of the English language. Or so goes the idea.
This has all given me something to think about in relation to my dissertation project, which I intend to be a translation of German poetry. By no means do I intend to write a half German translation, one abound with foreign references and my own flights of fancy. But before reading Venuti the question of translation would have been ‘how can I make this sound like good (English-language) poetry?’ Now I think the question of how to translate is a more complicated one. The first question is still relevant, but in addition to that one I must also ask ‘what marks can I leave as a translator?’ and ‘what marks of the original German should I maintain?’ Translation has always seemed like a delicate balance, but this issue of domestication and foreignization has added more weights to be allocated to just the right spots.
Cole Konopka was born in 1988. He lived, studied, and worked in Germany in 2007 as a participant of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Vocational Program. After studying English and Anthropology at the University of Iowa, Cole began his studies in literary translation at the University of East Anglia. In addition to translation, Cole also enjoys writing original works and painting.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

‘Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…’ : Prefaces and the voice of the translator

The preface is not something I had spent much time considering in my literary studies until now. In spite of a few notable exceptions (think Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads), prefaces to literary works tend to go relatively unnoticed. The important thing is ‘the words on the page’ – and pages prior to page 1 don’t count. “WE CANNOT KNOW THE AUTHOR’S INTENTIONS,” we shout, drowning out the author’s (timid or otherwise) declaration of “What I meant to say was this…”
It is true that authors do not have exclusive ownership of the meaning of their work, nor are they always best placed to comment on it. A magnificent novel might be preceded by a pretentious or less-than-insightful preface, like a once-aloof film star posting inanities on Twitter. Perhaps for good reason, then, prefaces to literary works are relatively rare today. However, there is a school of thought that says translations should be an exception to this rule.
Why, then, might a translator write a preface? It may be partly to do with the fact that we ask questions of translators that we don’t tend to ask of authors: why did you choose this text? Why doesn’t your translation of this poem rhyme? Translating poetry is impossible, isn’t it? A preface can be a way of pre-empting some of those questions; and it is hardly surprising if they sometimes come across as somewhat defensive.
We could also look at it in a more positive way: prefaces are a way for translators to explain their approach. They allow us a glimpse of the translation process. Most significantly, though, they make the translator visible. They remind the reader that the text is a translation – something which is all too easy to forget, particularly when reading fiction, where all efforts have usually been made to disguise the text’s translated nature.
Translators speak to the reader in the texts they translate, but it is only in a preface that they can speak entirely in their own voice. Prefaces can sometimes be political: for example, they have often been used by feminist translators to explain why a text by a woman writer has been neglected, or why they have adopted a ‘hijacking’ strategy, where a text that was not originally feminist is ‘appropriated’ in translation through alterations such as the introduction of gender-inclusive language.
Opponents of the translator’s preface argue that a translated text should ‘stand alone’, should speak for itself. However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds. No translation stands alone; it always bears the trace of its source. Any text is a palimpsest of influences and allusions, and is completed by a reader in a particular cultural context. It does not exist out of context. A non-translated text, however, is interpreted directly by the reader. In the case of a translation, the source text is interpreted by the translator, who then inevitably brings this interpretation to bear on his or her translation; reading translation is a more intertextual experience than reading a non-translated text.
Why, then, pretend that the need to explain is a weakness? We too often expect reading a translation to be like reading any other text; as a result, we do not want to hear the voice of the translator. Hearing that voice in a preface forces us to acknowledge the translator’s presence in the text itself; it reminds us that what we are reading is not a fixed, finite object, but is slippery, multi-layered, polyphonic.
Olivia Hanks translates from French to English, with a particular interest in poetry. She blogs about French literature at and can be contacted at

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Translation and Resistance

Translation can be a wonderful means of resistance in all sorts of ways. One of the most recent and prominent forms of resistance through translation has resulted from the issue concerning feminist punk rock group ‘Pussy Riot’. Pussy Riot staged a provocative performance of their song ‘Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and were venomously charged and imprisoned by the Russian government for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
Many of their speeches and court hearings have been translated, raising their profile in the West and perhaps hopefully, with the whole world watching, ensuring a certain amount of their safety in Russia. The translation of Pussy Riot has meant that both the western and Russian governments’ actions have become more visible to the general public and thus arguably, more accountable. Recently, correspondence between the only member of Pussy Riot to remain in prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and the famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, was translated into English and featured in The Guardian. Interestingly Nadezhda states:
“Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, "developed" countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights”.
Through translation, we have an opportunity to bring such views to the world stage, and potentially as a result to constrain our own government to take action. It is important that we continue to support these brave actions and to keep them in the spotlight. It is however necessary to try to understand why Pussy Riot has become so widely recognised and someone like Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who dedicated her life to human rights and because of her actions was assassinated in her own apartment, barely acknowledged.
In ‘The Invisibility of the Translator’ Venuti criticises the idea of Simpatico; the way in which a translator may empathise with an author s/he is translating in order to ‘improve’ the translation. Venuti posits that simpatico causes the work of literature to be centred on the ‘poetic I’, he states that: “Here it becomes clear that the translator’s feeling of simpatico is no more than a projection, that the object of the translator’s identification is ultimately himself, the “private associations” he inscribes in the foreign text in the hope of producing a similarly narcissistic experience in the English language reader.” In other words, Simpatico can lead us to impose a predominantly Anglo-American style of writing onto a foreign text and to recognize ourselves within it. Simpatico will therefore also lead us to choose to translate works of foreign literature that embody this particular style.
Perhaps, then, our overwhelming recognition of Pussy Riot stems from their mode; first of all the band name ‘Pussy Riot’ is not a translation, the name was originally in English and is therefore easily recognisable for an English-speaking audience. Secondly, as a feminist punk-rock group, Pussy Riot appeals to many young individualistic adults and teenagers in the West. We may conclude then, that through translation and the close analysis it requires, we can come to recognise how we relate to other cultures, and in turn we can learn to pay attention to narratives which do not necessarily have an initial impact on us, to recognise a plurality of outlooks and world-views, rather than ones which instantly appeal to our own.
Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Fear of Theory

During the final year of my undergraduate degree I wrote a dissertation on translation. It grew from a need for more engagement with poetry in my course and a suspicion that long essays need enjoyment and interest behind them, as well the impetus of a deadline. Little did I know how far from my previous life this particular long essay would take me. I threw myself into a reading list provided by my supervisor, hoovering up whatever I could get my hands on.
 Sitting down to read, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had already translated some poetry by the French poet Pierre Alferi and it seemed to have gone well. However, what I found in books by Lawrence Venuti, Basil Hakim and Susan Bassnett, among others, was a new world opening up before me. Sometimes alarming, always exciting, this discipline of literary translation theory presented challenges I had never envisioned, much less been prepared to tackle.
Imagine this - you are standing over a chasm, toes gripping the surrounding cliff edges like a cartoon bird, desperate not to plummet into the darkness. In black clothes and holding a duffle bag in which the entire culture of a country is hidden, you creep towards a large building. A moment later you’re calmly shelling peas, separating the delicious from the inedible. These are strange metaphorical situations to find yourself (metaphorically) in. These images arose in my mind from the apprehension of how little I felt I really knew about other readers, other writers and the way others think, how essential this had suddenly become. I asked myself, what did this mean for the translation I had just done? What had I got myself into?
Translation theory and much historical thinking about translation makes liberal use of metaphor to explain the sometimes mysterious act of making one text into another one. It was the first thing which struck me about the discipline and the aspect that still interests me now, as a wiser, more experienced MA student. There are so many sites of activity in any one translation, so much happens! Anything which can bring the complications of language difference, cultural difference and historical changes in society into one neat package is very valuable. Metaphor does this.
But what about the similarities, what about the need to explore the literature of other languages from sheer curiosity, from respect? There are metaphors for that too, different from the figures I mentioned before, though no less important. My favourite comes from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Task of the Translator1. Language, he says, shouts into the forest and waits to hear its own echo, transformed yet familiar. This is beautiful, and expresses the reason why the potential mistakes and dangers the previous metaphors entail are worth it in the end.
Here at the university, in the controlled environment of the seminar, I no longer feel the vertigo I once did when faced with the metaphors for translation. In fact, I have learned to look behind them to the many truths about the practical considerations of translating literature. Not only that, but I have learned to live with the risks of translating. I trust my languages and my instinct; I trust theory to keep my mind open. Can you think of a metaphor for that…?
1 Benjamin, W. (2012) in L. Venuti (ed) The Translation Studies Reader, London and New York: Routledge, p80
Anna Bryant is from County Meath, Ireland. She translates from French into English, and also occasionally from Irish. She is currently enjoying studying on the MA in Literary Translation course at the University of East Anglia and can be contacted at

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The surgeon, il chirurgo and la cirujana: gender in translation

I have to admit that when it comes to “gender” and “translation”, I get extremely suspicious towards my own ideas on the topic. I had never come across the issue before starting the MA in Literary Translation and I found out that for me dealing with gender and translation is more complicated than I thought. Mainly because my native language is Italian, I’ve always taken for granted the linguistic binary system (masculine-feminine) Italian is based upon. What I had never considered is how much this affects the way I think.
As a teenager I was really into riddles and I remember being told a very clever one which in English would sound more or less like this:

A man is driving his son to school, when a terrible car accident happens. The father dies, while the boy is in very critical conditions and needs surgery. An ambulance takes the boy to the hospital, where an astonished surgeon claims: “I can’t operate: he’s my son.” How is this possible?

The answer: “The surgeon is the boy’s mother”.

But when I was told that riddle that answer didn’t even cross my mind. My first attempts at resolving the riddle included miraculous resurrections on the ambulance and soap-opera finales, and it took me years until I finally got it right. Presuming that the original version of the riddle is in English, the ambiguity of the language (genderless, with few exceptions) makes the riddle work very well, but in Italian it works even better.

Because the Italian word for “surgeon”, chirurgo, is masculine and breaks the rules.

The general rule that helps you distinguish a masculine noun from a feminine one is that nouns ending with  –o are masculine and nouns ending with –a are feminine. For nouns belonging to the field of “jobs and crafts”, there are other matching desinences like –tore/–trice and –iere/-iera, that perform the same duties.  

Therefore we have operaio and operaia (worker), but also direttore/direttrice (director) and cassiere/cassiera (cashier).
Sometimes the noun doesn’t tell us anything about the gender. It’s the case of preside (headmaster), cantante (singer) and stilista (fashion designer), that don’t vary according to gender. However, we can easily understand whether we are talking about a man or a woman by looking at the accompanying article. Is it il cantante or la cantante? Un preside or una preside? And so on.

Then what happens with a noun like chirurgo? According to the general rule, the boy’s mother would be a *chirurga. Or, at least, *una chirurgo. For historical and social reasons, though, there are some nouns that don’t have a feminine equivalent: chirurgo, avvocato and ministro, for example. There have been some attempts to introduce some feminine equivalents like ministra and avvocatessa, and though in both cases you can actually find those terms in the dictionary, you will also find a “derog.” after them. Feminist translation theorists will please excuse me if I don’t delve deeper into the matter of sexism in Italian jobs and crafts; the only consideration that I’ll make is: no wonder the riddle worked great in Italian, at least ten years ago. Obviously, the more the years go by, the less effective it will be.  

As a translator, I consider this to be one of the rare cases where the genderless ambiguity given by the source text (which was written in English, presumably) is enhanced by gender in the Italian language.

As a final consideration, I wondered whether this riddle could work in Spanish as it does in Italian. It doesn’t. It’s almost impossible to translate. The Spanish feminine word for “surgeon” is cirujana, as opposed to cirujano. Using the masculine to preserve the surprise effect in a Spanish translation of the riddle not only would be stretched and démodé, but also grammatically incorrect.  

I’m Elena Traina, and I translate English and Spanish into Italian, and Italian into English. I’m currently studying Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. My main literary interest is children’s literature, but I’m a great fan of sci-fi, drama and poetry, too. I can be reached at

Monday, 2 September 2013

The New Sorrows of a Young Translator

After two pages I chucked the thing across the room. I’m telling you, guys, you just could not read that shit. Even with the best will in the world. Then five minutes later I’d got hold of it again. Either I wanted to read till the early hours or not at all. That’s just what I was like. Three hours later I’d finished it.
Guys – I was majorly pissed off. The bloke in the book, this Werther, his name was – he commits suicide at the end. Just gives up the ghost. Puts a bullet through his fricking head because he can’t get the woman he wants, and feels mega sorry for himself the whole entire time.
This biting critique of one of the all-time classics of German literature – Goethe’s 1774 epistolary novelDie Leiden des jungen Werther (‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’) – is spoken by the protagonist of another popular German work called Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (‘The New Sorrows of Young W.’), written by Ulrich Plenzdorf and published in 1973. Plenzdorf’s hero, Edgar Wibeau, is seventeen years old and a self-styled ‘unrecognised genius’. He likes painting abstract pictures, listening to jazz and inventing things, none of which are very compatible with being a factory apprentice in small-town East Germany. Edgar therefore abandons his apprenticeship and runs away to Berlin to become an artist. He holes up in a friend’s empty summer house, where he stumbles upon Goethe’s classic novel. It consists of a series of letters written by an emotional young man called Werther, whose verbose, effusive style Edgar initially finds somewhat ridiculous. Eventually, though, Edgar comes to see Werther as a kindred spirit. Both young men are frustrated by the conformist, restrictive worlds in which they live – in Werther’s case the rigidly class-conscious society of eighteenth-century Germany, in Edgar’s the authoritarian regime of the Socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1970s. Both protagonists feel unable to express their creativity, fulfil their ambitions, and live authentic lives within the confines of their respective societies, but Edgar expresses his frustrations in an ironic, slangy, modern idiom which is in stark contrast to Werther’s elevated language and tendency to wax lyrical.
I had to take all this into account when, as part of my final dissertation for the MA in Literary Translation, I translated the first 10,000 words of Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W. The two biggest problems I faced were what to do with Werther – a figure well-known to most German-speaking readers but potentially unfamiliar to English-speaking ones – and how to translate Edgar’s GDR youth slang: should I use 1970s or twenty-first-century slang, where in the world should it come from, and could I make it sound convincing? Both problems turned out to be hugely enjoyable to (try to) solve, and both involved some fascinating research.
Plenzdorf’s book is closely tied up with Goethe’s in terms of themes, plot, and characters. Werther, for instance, falls in love with Charlotte, and Edgar with Charlie. Both women are already engaged when Werther and Edgar meet them, and both end up marrying sensible older men. I felt that in order to fully understand and appreciate Plenzdorf’s text, it would be helpful for readers of my translation to know a bit about The Sorrows of Young Werther. I therefore decided to write a Translator’s Preface providing information about the novel for readers who might not have come across it before.
I also had to deal with some direct quotes from Goethe’s text. While living in Berlin, Edgar records several messages to his best friend Willi onto cassette tapes. The messages are all quotations from Werther’s letters, which Edgar uses to express his own feelings and views on the world – in a language, however, that is so alien to poor Willi that he thinks it is some kind of code, and cannot understand a word. Edgar’s mother and father are similarly baffled. I knew that these ‘Wertherisms’ would need to sound as flowery and archaic in English as they do in German to justify the characters’ mystified reactions to them, and to capture the comedy generated in the German text  by the contrast between Edgar’s modern(ish) slang and Werther’s eighteenth-century rhetoric. I decided to lift the Werther quotes from an existing translation of Goethe rather than translating them myself, so that English-speaking readers of my translation might have a chance of recognising them (given that they would be recognisable to many German-speaking readers of the original text). The question was, which of the existing English translations of The Sorrows of Young Werther could supply the antiquated-sounding language I was after? I was thrilled to discover the following passage in a translation by R.D. Boylan from 1854:
Because, on either side of this stream, cold and respectable persons have taken up their abodes, and, forsooth, their summer-houses and tulip-beds would suffer from the torrent; wherefore they dig trenches, and raise embankments betimes, in order to avert the impending danger.
Compare this with a 2012 translation of the same passage by David Constantine:
Friends, on both banks are the dwelling places of placid gentlemen whose summer-houses, tulip beds, and vegetable plots would be destroyed and who therefore in good time ward off the future danger by damming and diverting.
And, forsooth, I compared several different translations but it was Boylan’s – deliciously old-fashioned throughout – that won hands down.
When it came to translating Edgar’s language, however, I went in completely the opposite direction and used contemporary slang and colloquialisms, gleaned from slang dictionaries in print and online as well as from personal experience. As Michael Adams observes, ‘[s]lang is fresh and improvised, for the most part young language’ (2009:88). Slang that was in vogue in the 1970s, I felt, would not sound very fresh or improvised today. Slang also ‘indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful and in touch with the latest trends’ (Coleman 2012:71), and I knew that if Edgar was to strike modern-day readers (particularly younger ones) as being ‘youthful and in touch with the latest trends’, he would need to use youthful, trendy slang.
I had decided when to locate my slang, then – knowing where it should come from was slightly more difficult. I didn’t want Edgar’s voice to sound too localised, as I felt it might be jarring for the reader to hear a German character speaking like a born-and-bred New Yorker or Yorkshireman, for example. I eventually opted for the strategy suggested by Susanne Ghassempur of using ‘a supraregional colloquial language that is universally understood by readers in the target language’ (2011:54). I tried to use slang and colloquialisms that were not strongly identifiable with any particular place (so Cockney rhyming slang was out, unfortunately!)
The work I have done for my dissertation, translating part of Plenzdorf’s text and writing a commentary explaining my translation strategies, has been a lesson in the potential neverendingness of translation. Firstly in the sense that I could work on this project for years – reading and comparing the many English versions of The Sorrows of Young Werther, consulting secondary literature on Plenzdorf and Goethe, researching the historical context of the GDR, poring over slang dictionaries, referring to books and articles on translation theory – without knowing everything there is to know. And secondly in the sense that, as I have realised over the past few months, different people could translate this book (or any book) over and over again forever, and each version of it would always be new, and would never be definitive. Language is always evolving (and slang evolves particularly rapidly). A text can be renewed in translation with each new generation of language users – with each new translator, in fact, since every translator will produce a different interpretation of a given text. The New Sorrows – and Joys! – of every translation can shed fresh light on an original text, and on whole multitudes of new linguistic possibilities.
Adams, M. (2009) Slang: The People’s Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Boylan, R. D. (tr.) (2009 [1854]) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 6 August 2013]
Coleman, J. (2012) The Life of Slang, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Constantine, D. (tr.) (2012) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ghassempur, S. (2011) in F. M. Federici (ed)Translating Dialects and Languages of Minorities,Oxford: Peter Lang, pp. 49-64
Plenzdorf, U. (1973) Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., Frankfurt: Suhrkamp (the extract quoted here is from page 36 of the original text and is my own translation).

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Letting Go

At the end of this one-year course, we have to write a dissertation. I have chosen to write a translation with a commentary. The subject of my dissertation was to translate 10000 words of a book entitled Petit traité de l’abandon written by Alexandre Jollien who is a disabled writer and philosopher. In this book, he shares his thoughts, and reflects on moments of his life influenced by authors he has read, encounters he has had and approaches to life, religion, relationships and love. Because of his disability, Alexandre Jollien cannot physically write anymore but talks through a recording machine, which gives a distinct oral quality to the book. The commentary is, as I have called it, “a little investigation” on ‘untranslatability’. Indeed, as a translator, I have always been attracted by what we can call the paradox of translation. The idea that some texts seem impossible to translate yet translatable, has drawn me to attempt to produce a translation of Petit traité de l’abandon. I have chosen this source text because of the unique connexion between the author’s background, the source text and its style, which in my opinion makes this text appear impossible to translate. The leading idea of this book is the paradox that Jollien explains of ‘l’abandon’. ‘L’abandon’ means ‘abandonment’ in English but also it is also used in the sense of ‘letting go’. Throughout his book, Jollien explains how paradoxically, ‘l’abandon’, which could be seen as negative, because of its first meaning of ‘giving up’, has actually become the goal of his life. In his own words, the purpose of ‘l’abandon’ is to “follow the flow of life.” (personal translation, 2012: 11)

Thanks to this source text and to the process of the translation, I realised that this concept of ‘letting go’ could be applied to translation. Indeed, as I have explained in my commentary, during the process of translation, the translator has not only to translate the words, but he or she also has to become the author of the translation. In order to do so, the translator has to read, research and even talk to the author of the source text. However all this research will never produce a target text able to recreate similar effects on its readers than the source text readers had. The translator has to combine his or her knowledge on the author, the source text and on the cultural differences with his or her creativity. Translating is ‘letting go’. There will be a moment in the translation process where the source text will not be enough anymore to create a good translation and the translator will have to ‘let go’ of the source text and all its constrains in order to allow his or her creativity to come across.

I realised during this translation that at some point in the process I was ‘letting go’ of the source text without being aware of it and that only then I was able to allow myself, the translator, to translate for the target text readers. I wanted to share this realisation in this blog-post because I am convinced that it can be helpful for young translators just like myself.

Charlotte Laruelle translates French and English, currently doing the MA in literary translation at UEA. Can be contacted at

Monday, 19 August 2013

Literary and Non-Literary Translation: Studying Translation and a Little Work Experience

One of the best things about the UEA's MA in Literary Translation course, and there are many good things about it, is actually what's not on the course. What I mean is that the lecturers on the course and the staff at the university work very hard, and are very helpful, when it comes to getting students involved in translation related activities outside of class. Internships at the BCLT, the BCLT Summer School, a publishing internship, translation editing workshops in a coffee shop, public lectures with award winning translators, attending conferences, attending the London Book Fair, an award ceremony, talks on comic-book translation in a pub and going to professional networking events are just some of the activites and schemes that have been on offer. It was at the last one – a networking event encouraging UEA students to think about using their language skills in their futures – that I met representatives of a Norwich based data capture company. I then ended up working for them on an interesting translation project for a supermarket in China. I want to say a few things about it here because it's made me think a bit about what do you do as a 'Literary Translator', and what's the difference between translating Literature, and something like a brand of toothbrushes?

So, first of all, what do you as a 'Literary Translator'? Well, I don't feel that I can answer this with any great authority as I'm not published, but it's still an interesting question for me, as it's something I want to pursue. I get the impression that, from a fascinating talk from the Translators in Residence at the Free Word Centre during the LBF, literary translators do a lot. A surprising amount, actually. They teach, write articles, organise games, take part in 'Translation Slams', edit, travel, translate words and, of course, translate literature. In this past year it's been wonderful to see so many literary translators, including teachers at the UEA and translators in London, being involved in different projects linked to their communities. It seems like a major part of literary translation is actually using language skills, critical thinking and decision making skills to work in other areas and fields of study. My experience of working outside of literary translation has been with this company in Norwich. The job involved translating and writing product descriptions for 'everyday' items. In fact, it was more like everyday items in China; some of the names for such items had never been translated into English, and many of the items are rarely seen in the UK. I was challenged by having to translate such words casually appearing on packaging as 阿胶, 牛皮糖, 蛇胆 and 灌肠,  (a quick google translate will let you know why these words might be problematic, and give you a few giggles too!) Being faced with such oddities made me realise that decision making and arguing your case are important parts of being a translator – arguments of whether 牛皮糖 should be 'Chewy Sweets' or 'Leather Sugar' went on for a while – and I think that literary translators develop such skills and apply them to many parts of their working life. I also feel that studying translation has better equipped me with such skills (although I do have room to improve and will keep trying to do so).

Having looked back at a few of my translation problems outside of literary translation has made me think about the difference between literary and non-literary translation. In terms of translating Chinese to English, and this may be true of many other languages including translating from French and Spanish, I don't think there's much difference in the actual process, but there is a difference in the product. Chinese works so differently to English that translating it involves changing almost everything; adding articles, reorganizing sentences, deleting measure words, deciding on tenses and so on. These processes were pretty much the same between my prose translations and the translations for the supermarket. With the supermarket translations, however, the translations had to fit the company's strict guidelines; limited character numbers, information order, use of particular measure words and so on. I've found that with literary translation there is a stronger emphasis on the feel and the style of a text. A lot of the work of other Chinese to English translators, such as Howard Goldblatt, have a distinctive literary feel, and I would also argue, the style of the translator. For example, some Chinese to English translators like to use pinyin to translate the story's characters' names, whilst others prefer to translate the meanings of the names. Goldblatt's translation of Su Tong's Rice() included characters like Old Six and Five Dragons, and I think that the decision to do this give the text a particular style, which allowed the translator to put themselves into the text. The freedom to make such decisions about influencing the style of a translated text is at least sometimes the difference between literary and non-literary translation. At least it was in my experience, although this might not be the case in other types of non-literary translation, as there are a lot of types of text out there that need translating. The main thing is that the process of making decisions about changing the text is in many ways the same, even if the product of the translation is not.

Now I'm wondering why I'm talking about non-literary translation on a literary translation blog. Well, I want to say literary and non-literary translation are both very close; literary translators often work on non-literary translation, and they do lots of things to engage people with literature outside of their own work. The UEA's Literary Translation course is well integrated with other areas of translation, and it's given me the opportunity to experience professional non-literary translation. The experience has given me an awareness of some of the skills I have gained on the course, and has taught me a bit about the relationship between literary and non-literary translation. I think both areas work well together, and I'm glad to have had the chance to take part in both (even if just a little). I also think that one of the possible benefits of translators doing so much outside of their 'work', is that this might not only raise awareness of translators and what they do, but also an awareness of foreign literature.

I just want to say something (and feel it important as someone interested in Chinese to English translation) about contemporary Chinese literature. Brendan O'Kane, a great translator of Chinese and blogger, said in a recent interview that 'The more we can do to demystify it [China], through journalism or writing or documentaries, or through Pathlight to introduce people to the idea that there are young Chinese writers working through the same issues that they are – to get people used to the idea that China’s just a place like any other, and not that special. I think that’s a very worthwhile thing to work towards' ( 2013:np). I agree with pursuing a 'demystified' view of China and its literature. I think that the brilliant work of translators to intergrate their work with other projects and fields of study can all help with this pursuit. China and Chinese are, for many people I know, still both a far off place and a mysterious language. The problem with such a distance in people's minds is that it can lead to misunderstandings. Working towards clarity can often be, in my opinion, for the best. I hope that brilliant work coming from Chinese to English translators, through routes such as Pathlight, keep up, and that the English language readership will become more and more familiar with great writers such as Qian Zhongshu (钱钟书), Bing Xin (冰心), Bei Dao (北岛), Can Xue, (残雪), Jin Yong (金庸), Yu Hua (余华), Zhang Yueran (张悦然), Liu Cixin (刘慈欣), Ling Chen (凌晨), and many, many, many, more.

Now, unlike Brendan O'Kane who is leaving China, I'm soon going to be off to China to keep reading up on (and perhaps even try my hand at translating) some of the new talent emerging from China.


Thomas Newell translates from Chinese into English, and is currently studying for an MA in Literary Translation at the UEA as well as interning for Arc Publications. Contact him at